I felt as if I was in a scene from a Jeffrey Flint novel. An email came in saying a skull had been found in the island of Alderney, then a phone call from the police concerned they had a crime scene. It had turned up in a trench being dug for an electric main across the dunes of Longis Common. Was this a crime scene or an archaeological site? Which aspect of ‘blood and trowels’ was involved?
From the start I was pretty sure the skull was ancient – there were reports of Roman burials in that area dating back to Victorian times. However, sensationalist stories swirl about Alderney and inevitably some people started to wonder if this was a slave worker murdered or worked to death by the Nazis during their occupation of the island. The fact that the skull came from under the road, and the road was laid round about the war, suggested to me that this was most likely to be pre-war. The depth of 1.2 metres was also about right. There is I believe a whole Iron Age and Roman landscape buried under 1-2 metres of sand at Longis, possibly a whole village or fort. Only a hundred metres or so from the finds stands the best preserved late Roman small fort in Britain – the Nunnery.
I couldn’t fly to Alderney as notice was too short to get a flight, but my local colleague Isabel was able to examine the bones and the site. The police decided this was not a crime scene and we archaeologists were in business. I was able to bring the bones back with me latter than week in an ‘evidence’ bag. Then came a call that more skulls had been found. It was 8.30pm and I was settling down for a movie. There was still free seats on the Friday morning flight, so I was in the island by 9am next day. Unlike the UK, little Alderney has no resident professional rescue archaeology unit to call on but the all-volunteer Alderney Society were on hand to lend assistance.
It was summer-holiday brochure hot and I always love working in Alderney. The site overlooks wide Longis Bay with France 9 miles in the distance. Workmen soon showed me the lengths of wall – presumed Roman – emerging from the 300m long trench. We walked the trench and spotted something sticking out of the side. It was an Iron Age pot that had been clipped by the excavator scoop. I could easily dig it out of the sand with my hands, scooping fragments of pot, charcoal and burned bones into bags to be ‘excavated’ later.
My colleague Isabel and I then tackled the second skull, which was jutting into the trench just over a metre down, within a stone-lined cist whose lid had been partly torn off by the excavator. The skull had also been damaged (and was still protected by ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape) but I set to, again mostly with fingers. I had only once dug up a skeleton and that was in 1980. Then I had used a teaspoon to gently remove a Merovingian woman’s bones from a wet sticky ditch, using a paperclip to clean her teeth.
In the case of Alderney it was fingers, and we had a race against time as the project needed to push forward and the all-sand sections don’t stay in place very long. I believe Skull 2 to have belonged to a woman, and she (?) was buried with her chin on her chest, looking at her feet. Maybe she had been lowered in a shroud to give her that hunched posture. Her face was almost intact and I found the lower mandible as well as some vertebra. The ribs were well under the road so I left those in place.
And then we found a third body, a few metres further down the trench. This was a small skeleton- possibly a juvenile, Skull 1 had also looked like a juvenile and I’m wondering whether it once belonged to this body as I only saw legs and a pelvis. A full skeleton was a different matter to retrieving damaged skulls. We’d also walked the trench with Rick from the engineering team and found half a dozen other likely spots. It was time to halt the commando raid, take stock, and call for reinforcements.